Lincoln Steffens Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

A native Californian, Steffens studied psychology in Europe following graduation from the University of California at Berkeley. When he returned to the United States, he found work as a reporter for the New York Post. In 1901 he became managing editor of McClure’s Magazine, a periodical later renowned for its muckraking exposes. When Steffens became depressed at being trapped behind a desk, his publisher, S. S. McClure, took pity on him and told him to go out into the country to find a story in 1902. Steffens responded with his famous series detailing municipal corruption, “The Shame of the Cities.”

Steffens remained with McClure’s until 1906, when he left to start a new magazine, American, along with other muckraking journalists. His association with American lasted only two years. Because he was a progressive socialist, Steffens’ radical views created conflicts with his more conservative colleagues. After he visited the Soviet Union in 1919, he wrote “I have seen the future and it works.” For many editors, this statement confirmed that Steffens was communist and led to a blacklisting of his writings in the United States. Steffens remained influential in intellectual circles, particularly in Europe, where he associated with writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, published in 1931, was widely read for many years, but fell out of favor during the Red Scare of the 1950’s.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joseph Lincoln Steffens, the most notable of the early twentieth century muckrakers and one of the most important journalists of his time, was born in San Francisco on April 6, 1866. The son of Joseph Steffens, a prominent businessman, and his wife, English-born Elizabeth Symes, he grew up in Sacramento, where the family moved in 1870. Childhood explorations took precedence over schooling and discipline until his parents seized the initiative and enrolled him in a military academy. After an additional year with a private tutor, Steffens entered the University of California at Berkeley and earned his degree in 1889. Declining his father’s offer to join his business, he decided to pursue a general interest in philosophy and began graduate study in Germany. There, his interests broadened to include ethics and psychology. When Steffens finally returned to New York City in 1892, his father discontinued financial support and forced him to seek work.

Steffens’s first job was covering Wall Street as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He quickly became disillusioned with big business. Steffens also worked as a police reporter. He soon discovered that police, criminals, politicians, and businessmen often worked together for mutual benefit—with the public usually the loser. He was beginning to piece together an understanding of interdependence among various social elements that he would later describe as a “System.”

After a brief stint as a city editor, Steffens moved to McClure’s magazine in 1901. There he gave his fascination with civic corruption a national scope. His “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” which appeared in the October, 1902, McClure’s, gave him the distinction of being the first “muckraker” and made him an influential figure in the emerging Progressive movement. Steffens continued his systematic research into the causes of municipal corruption and broadened his study to include other municipalities. He found a cycle of corruption that was pervasive and consistent. His articles, collected in The Shame of the Cities, confirmed his earlier suspicion that politics and business were inseparable. Yet Steffens was optimistic, hoping that an informed public...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Filler, Louis. Muckraking and Progressivism in the American Tradition. Somerset, N.J.: Transaction, 1996. Places Steffens in the context of the larger muckraking movement.

Horton, Russell M. Lincoln Steffens. New York: Twayne, 1974. An excellent, short, intellectual biography.

Kaplan, Justin. Lincoln Steffens. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. A detailed, popular account.

Palermo, P. F. Lincoln Steffens. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A brief analysis of Steffens’s writings and career.

Stinson, Robert. Lincoln Steffens. New York: F. Ungar, 1979. An account of Steffens as writer and journalist.

Winter, Ella. And Not to Yield: An Autobiography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963. An excellent source for personal information on Steffens’s later years written by his widow.

Winter, Ella, and Herbert Shapiro, eds. The World of Lincoln Steffens. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962. A collection of articles from Steffens’s post-muckraking years.

Wright, Melanie Jane. Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. An analysis of three retellings of Moses’s life, including Steffens’s Moses in Red.